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The David Lee conundrum

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David Lee is the remaining casualty of the Pierce-Garnett trade after being sent to Boston for Gerald Wallace last summer. He's played well in short stints for the young rebuilding team, but has made it known that he'd like more floor time.

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

In an interview with the Globe's Gary Washburn, David Lee recently voiced his frustration with his playing time and role on the Celtics:

"I don't accept [it], it's very frustrating, and the moment you start to accept it is when [you've] kind of stopped trying," Lee said. "While Coach can make any decision whom he wants to start or bring off the bench, my goal is to be a guy who's playing 20, 25 minutes, and I've had a meeting with Coach and told him that.

"And that's no disrespect to any other big [man] we have. But as a player I think everybody wants to play more and that's just having confidence in your own game."

Those comments might rub people the wrong way, but I genuinely believe that Lee wants to help this team and I think he can.  After opening training camp as a revelation and the regular season as a starter, you can't blame him for feeling a little frustrated.  He may not be Brad Stevens prototypical big man who can space the floor.  He's not the best defender and he's not the best shooter, but he's shown flashes of his old self in pick-and-rolls and been a very willing passer as a playmaker at the high post.

But the case for giving Lee more playing time doesn't look good.  Here's Jay King of MassLive.com painting a not so rosy picture:

By far, Lee has the worst net rating among Boston regulars. The Celtics have been about 10 points per 100 possessions worse with Lee on the court, and are getting outscored by 3.2 points per 100 possessions during his playing time. Basically, they have behaved like a peripheral contender without him, but a lottery team with him. According to NBA.com, Lee lineups have posted an anemic 95.3 offensive rating, which would be last in the league if the Philadelphia 76ers didn't exist.

Of the six players who have played at least 100 minutes alongside Lee, only Isaiah Thomas has been immune to the "Lee dip" -- a drastic drop in net rating (how the Celtics perform compared to their opponent per 100 possessions) depending on whether the big man's in the lineup. The numbers are staggering:

  • Evan Turner (+9.4 without Lee, -0.2 with him)
  • Isaiah Thomas (+5.5 without Lee, +5.2 with him)
  • Kelly Olynyk (+9.5 without Lee, -4.5 with him)
  • Avery Bradley (+9.1 without Lee, -0.6 with him)
  • Jae Crowder (+8.7 without Lee, -2.5 with him)
  • Jonas Jerebko (+11.9 without Lee, -2.7 with him)

Some of that statistical evidence is circumstantial.  You can't exactly draw a direct correlation of how one player affects another without considering the other three players on the floor, but the numbers can be condemning for a front office and coach that rely heavily on analytics.

As King points out, the Celtics have played more small ball over the last two games and it has worked.  With either Jae Crowder or Jonas Jerebko at the 4, the Celtics erased a double-digit lead in San Antonio and ran away with a win against New Orleans.  Lee is still a very good player and could have contributed in those games, but at this point, his game just doesn't fit the way Boston is playing.

But this is a micro look of David Lee as a Celtic.  Let's look long term.  With Brooklyn's first round picks (and several others) on the horizon, the Celtics don't necessarily have to think of jockeying for lottery position.  They're in win now mode and if a player can contribute now regardless of his age and contract status, he should play.  However with that said, you have to wonder if the 32-year-old is in Boston's long term plans.

The player seemingly most affected by Lee's arrival has been Tyler Zeller and it's only been a few months since we all thought that Zeller was going to sign an extension on his rookie contract.  He's played sparingly over the last six weeks, but even with him riding the pine, Stevens has voiced a vote of confidence for TZ and predicted that he'd play a huge role for the team as the season progressed.  Recently he's played spot minutes will Lee out of the lineup with the heel injury and looked solid.

Couple Zeller's presence with the surprising development of Jordan Mickey down in Maine and the fact that December 15th is around the corner (when teams can trade players signed to new contracts last summer) and you have a perfect storm for a possibly Lee departure.  The trade market unofficially opens in a wek and Lee's expiring $15.5M could be an attractive asset for a team trying to clear cap space or a contender that needs a reliable big man off the bench.  You have to imagine that if there's an Isaiah Thomas-size trade out there that could net Danny Ainge another young impact player, Lee won't last until the new year.

The Celtics have a chance to make history on Friday as the undefeated Golden State Warriors come to the Garden with a 23-0 record.  The game will be a bittersweet reminder for Lee that it was his demotion from the starting lineup last season that helped propel GSW's meteoric rise to last year's championship and this year's incredible streak.  And it's possible that Lee's request for more PT goes unnoticed and the Celtics use small ball against the team that lifted the Larry O'Brien playing that style last June.

Or the old dog comes out aggressive and puts up 14 & 11 against his old squad in the Warriors' first loss.